Blowback’s a bitch: MH17 and the east Ukraine campaign’s long-term costs for Russia

MH17Policy makers, especially policy makers who have never seen action, are often seduced by covert operations. They see them as the perfect policy instrument: cheap, deniable, effective. Yes, there can be tremendously effective covert or at least non-conventional operations and campaigns, but just as all intelligence operations must come to terms with the fundamental truth that nothing is guaranteed to stay secret for ever, so too these sneaky campaigns can very easily either fail or, even more likely, have unexpected consequences that may overshadow the intended outcome. After all, while Al-Qaeda and the rise of Osama Bin Laden cannot entirely be charted back to the US campaign to support Islamist rebels fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan–had the social, political and intellectual climate not been ready for the message of jihad then they would have remained on the fringes–nonetheless there is a strong connection.

Courtesy of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, Putin is now coming to terms with the blowback from his Ukrainian adventure, a hybrid non-linear political-military campaign fought largely through local proxies, and this is something that will dog him for as long as he is in power. I plan to look at these in more detail at a later date, but in summary, the consequences are:

1. You don’t have control over events on the ground but (rightly) get blamed when bad stuff happens. The MH17 shootdown is generating an unprecedented level of anger.Even if ultimately it is unable to muster the unity, determination and moral courage to act resolutely–although I hope they do–I do not believe the West will look at Putin the same way again. Furthermore, the pliant choir of “useful idiots” arguing the Russian case, whether out of self-interest or because of a naive and perverse disillusion with their own society, will find their lives harder and their audiences less tolerant.

2. You inject yourself into the negotiations, but can’t deliver on a deal. At this stage, Kyiv will be looking for more from Moscow than “we won’t send any more people or weapons in to join the fight” but it is questionable whether the Russians can do more than extract those elements of the rebellion which really are direct covert operatives and try to persuade the rest. Given that Moscow doesn’t really care about the east Ukrainians but is instead using them to put pressure on Kyiv, it is unlikely to put a great premium on looking after them and their interests–but it must then sell them the consequent peace terms.

3. You create chaos on your border. Even if Kyiv is able to win a military victory or else is willing and able to arrange some kind of peace deal (which is all the harder now), eastern Ukraine will be suffering from the effects of this nasty conflict for years to come. Bad blood between communities, civilians angry at either the separatists or government after being caught in the crossfire, a haemorrhage of weapons which will arm gangsters, terrorists and random lunatics for years to come… Considering the close ethnic and economic connections across the border, that will inevitably have an impact on Russia.

4. You disappoint people you previously counted as fervent supporters. It’s not just Strelkov who expressed disappointment at Russia’s stance. There are already concerns within the ultra-nationalist wing in Russia, people who previously saw Putin as the ideal ruler, not least given his recent shift towards a messianic Russian exceptionalism and a commitment to asserting Russia’s rights to protect Russians abroad. This is very much a fringe movement, and poses no serious threat to Putin, but it does mean that he no longer can rely on their active support.

5. You undermine your persona as the infallible tsar. Of course the Russian media will spin whatever decision he chooses to make, but we shouldn’t presume that the Russian population are wholly clueless. If he has to accept the crushing of the insurrection and, even more alarming, a further Ukrainian drift towards Europe without having been given some grounds to claim”Mission Accomplished”, then he will look bad. (To that end, if the aim is an early end to hostilities, it would make sense for Kyiv to ponder what face-saving package it can give that it is willing to give: simply a nicely package assertion of things already said, such as the protection of Russia’s status as a state language; as well as what is a practical inevitability, such as ruling out NATO membership for at least 8 years, might be enough.)

6. You look weak before your other neighbours, undermining claims to regional hegemony. Just as the 2008 Georgian War was as much–if not mainly–about asserting Moscow’s will and capacity to punish those Near Abroad states challenging its regional hegemony, a perceived failure in Ukraine cannot but embolden those other nations. Let’s face it, Moscow has in the main relatively little positive soft power: no one especially likes Russia or looks up to it as a model. Instead, there are some countries who regard it as either too useful or too dangerous to flout. That pragmatic arithmetic may shift.

7. You are held accountable for your actions (maybe). We’ll have to see quite how robust the further Western response will be. The current sanctions regime and diplomatic chill is a little irksome but entirely bearable, but if we start seeing more concrete measures, whether the cancellation of contracts (can Paris really still deliver modern assault carriers to Russia with good conscience?), expanded travel bans or even sectoral sanctions, then this will hit Russia and Russians. Short-term bravado will give way to longer-term concerns in this case. Either way, those voices in the West who warned that Putin’s Russia was that dangerous thing, a compound of the aggressive and erratic, have been proven right, and NATO now looks more relevant than at any time since not even 1991, but arguably since Gorbachev’s accession to power.

One way or the other, while the concept of non-linear war is still entirely valid and will be a crucial factor in 21st century statecraft, in this case it has gone very wrong. Bad luck for Moscow, to a degree, but handing powerful weapons to undertrained, undisciplined and gung-ho rebels is in many ways an invitation to such bad luck. And ultimately Putin has no one to blame but himself (although I’m sure he’ll find someone.)

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  1. Nice analysis and would like to agree with your rational thesis, but I see something much darker and sicker on the Russian horizon. Lying, falsehood, deception and prevarication have so infected the Russian information space, that the people (and the Kremlin leadership) are no longer able to differentiate fact from fiction. The legions of Kremlin spin-meisters have already created a powerful counter-narrative which places the blame for this disaster on leaders in Washington and Kiev. I fear that those 298 innocent victims of this Kremlin-abetted crime will only become another bloody scene to a wider, more devastating ‘performance’ between Russia and the West.

  2. djwebb2010

     /  July 20, 2014

    What a spiteful and jaundiced blogpost! Russia was given assurances in 1989-91 that were not kept to. They had reasonable hopes of abandoning communism and being admitted to the councils of the West, but have been spurned at each turn. The worst thing about all this is that NATO remains in operation for lack of any other foreign policy. The only reason for NATO to exist is to oppose Russia. This “crisis” does not prove NATO needs to exist, but is rather a product of the failure to fold up NATO in 1991. Galeotti says not a word about Victoria Nuland and the US attempts to orchestrate the Maidan protests and eject an elected president from power. I’m looking forward to the end of US hegemony, as China, India, Russia and others come to the fore.

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  July 20, 2014

      How sad to see someone apparently eager to rationalise the murderous tragedy of the MH17 shootdown because apparently NATO wasn’t fair to Russia. Apart from the fact that I don’t agree, this is irrelevant, unless you feel that somehow what is decided in Brussels or Washington legitimises war in Ukraine.

      • djwebb2010

         /  July 20, 2014

        It doesn’t rationalise the shooting down of the MH17. We’re assuming it was not a Ukrainian false flag operation (?). On that assumption, the MH17 was shot down having been mistaken for a Ukrainian military place. The responsibility is on Kiev for using military jets in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. The idea that separatists should not shoot at war jets targeting them is ridiculous. Did the North American colonists shoot at the British in 1776?

        I said nothing about MH17 in my post. In fact, you claim to be an academic, but one with an inability to think clearly. How can you conduct a PhD viva voce if you read my comment, and then immediate say “it is eager to rationalise” the shooting down of MH17? If you forge incorrect logical connections, you are not intellectually qualified to be an academic. I do not rationalise it. But the whole of the Ukraine should have been part of Russia all along. To see the Ukraine used against Russia or even on the verge of admission to the EU and NATO and then a military frontier moved all the way east cancels out all the gains from WW2. Russia has already allowed Estonia to join NATO – in my view that should have led to a declaration of war against Estonia, because that brings NATO right up to St. Petersburg. The toleration of that amounts to disrespect by the Russian government for the dead of Leningrad.

        You seem to forget – oh how convenient – about the US stance on Cuba. Would the American government like it if Chinese troops were brought into Toronto and Montreal under a military alliance with Ottawa? Countries do have strategic interests, and Russia is right to pursue its interests. You are agitating for warfare under the pretence of being an academic. Shouldn’t Victoria Nuland be indicted as an accessory to the downing of MH17? And if not, why not?

      • Mark Galeotti

         /  July 20, 2014

        This is an extraordinary screed, that I am letting through moderation simply as a case study in what passes for argument amongst the extreme Russia apologists. A few points:

        1. “We’re assuming it was not a Ukrainian false flag operation (?)” Yes, of course we are; there is absolutely no plausible evidence suggesting it may be.

        2. “The responsibility is on Kiev for using military jets in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions.” Any state has the right to use force against armed, violent rebels, especially those who are clearly supported by a foreign power.

        3. “The idea that separatists should not shoot at war jets targeting them is ridiculous. Did the North American colonists shoot at the British in 1776?” Of course they did. And if they murdered 300 innocent civilians, then we’d still regard that as an atrocity, even if they thought they were redcoats.

        4. “I said nothing about MH17 in my post.” No, but you were replying to a post about MH17; if you had wanted to make a comment entirely distinct from MH17, then this was hardly the right way or place to do it.

        5. “But the whole of the Ukraine should have been part of Russia all along.” This is a breathtaking bit of imperialist thinking. Russia recognised Ukrainian sovereignty, not least in the 1994 Budapest memo which also committed it to respecting Ukraine’s borders (including Crimea…). More to the point, every survey — outside Crimea, which is a special case — shows an overwhelming majority of Ukrainians, even Russian-speaking ones in the east, want to be part of an independent Ukraine. And yet you feel they ought to be forced into Russia against their will.

        6. “Russia has already allowed Estonia to join NATO.” Likewise, what right does Russia have to “allow” a sovereign nation to join whatever alliance it wants, especially a defensive one. Did Moscow ask the EU’s permission before creating the CIS or joining the SCO?

        7. “You seem to forget – oh how convenient – about the US stance on Cuba.” It’s not that I forget it (and for the record I oppose it), it’s just that it’s irrelevant. When I see US-backed anti-government forces on Cuba shoot down a passenger jet with a US-supplied missile, then I will criticise Washington. But until that happens, this is just fatuous whataboutism.

        8. “Countries do have strategic interests, and Russia is right to pursue its interests.” Sure — within the bounds of international law and its own agreed commitments. Moscow is observing neither. Or do you feel, for example, that US/EU/NATP interests would thus legitimate arming, say, the rebels of the North Caucasus? You can’t excuse one without excusing the other.

        Beyond all this, your comments have also been laced with personal insults towards me. I honestly don’t care if you like me or not, but I see no reason why I should give airtime to someone who thinks that the best way to cover up the evident holes in his argument are with abuse. Don’t bother posting any more comments.

      • Mark, that’s a superbly measured response in the face of abject ignorance. I only hope I can exercise the same restraint in my future journeys into academia. Chapeau.

      • Well done, Mr Galeotti. I wished I could be as level-headed and principled as you were in your clear answers.

  3. Excellent article.

    A consistent theme of Russian propaganda over Ukraine has been their arrogance and taking the moral high ground from their prospective, when they have been breaking International Law with their insurgency with covert troops and equipment into a neighbouring Sovereign nation. This has continued with them trying to blame Ukraine for MH-17 by implying it is Ukraine’s fault just through defending their territory. There have also been the not unexpected conspiracy theories and denials to try to muddy the waters. When the popular press is calling it “Putin’s missile”, they need to recognise in the court of public opinion the game is up and in the words of Denis Healey’s first law on holes: “Stop digging”.

    On top of this the fact they have not tried to take positive steps to help with securing the crash site, allowing the crash investigators full access as soon as was practicable, the retrieval and handing over of the black boxes and the sad task of the timely and dignified removal of the dead to mortuaries. This has compound their problems and has hardened peoples attitudes and will continue to do so.

    How the situation is resolved in East Ukraine is very much in Russia’s hands and I agree with you that some sort of face saving agreement for Putin would be in Ukraine’s and Russia ‘s interests so the insurgency is over as quickly as possible at a minimum cost of lives. To my mind the fate of the Russian adventurers in Ukraine has always been win, die or the Ukrainian judicial system, where Russia will not want them back, especially so if Russia abandons them, to potentially cause problems there. This has been reinforced where Russian border guards have fired on the insurgents trying to return to Russia.

    The world eyes are now going to be on Russia and their actions and it is down to them on how much they do the right things to redeem as much as possible from this bad, sad situation, not only for the 298 civilians lives lost on MH-17 but also for all of the civilian deaths in Ukraine and Ukrainian troops defending their country which have occurred as a result of their actions.

  4. This is some of the best analysis on this topic I have seen in a while. I wanna focus on just one thought it provoked here, because I also get pissed off at the “useful idiots” who defend the Russian position without any knowledge of the long complex history of this region or the centuries old struggle for Ukrainian sovereignty, against the backdrop of whether the powers in Central Europe and Moscow agree to have a direct border or a buffer state. They are often the types of people who would stand up for Palestine against Israel, or other peoples under foreign military occupation, yet bizarrely are effectively taking the side of the invaders here because they see Russia as standing up to “American Imperialism”. Aside from the fact the the USA is only really involved by proxy, this is hypocritical. If you are opposed to one imperialism you should be opposed to all of them. They are also often the types of people who are gullible enough to follow conspiracy theories or pseudoscience. I think this phenomenon is a symptom of the correctly acknowledged awareness of how highly controlled mainstream media has become (by Murdoch et al.), which leads people to react by becoming cynical and believing the opposite of whatever the television says, or get their news from obscure blog sites. In this case, “the news told me that the separatists fired the rockets which hit MH17. Sure, like I would believe that. The news is the one which told me that Saddam had WMDs. They lied about that. They probably also lied about September 11 too etc.”
    I try to explain it like this: suppose the political leader you hate made a statement against cancer. Does that mean that you have to be for cancer? You should approach each political statement with an open mind then judge it according to your own principles, rather than agreeing or disagreeing based on who said it.

  5. Could not agree more with your analysis. I had naively expected Spetsnaz to intervene and destroy Ukrainian HQs and rear area units right and left. But once the Ukrainians realized Putin couldn’t afford to blow his cover, it was pretty inevitable. Any motivated conventional army can eventually defeat a smaller volunteer force in head-on combat. With the rebels on the brink of disaster he has the pretty choice of withdrawing all the incriminating equipment and personnel–and thus betraying his surrogates–or making it plain what he’s been doing all along. But the real nightmare is that the rebel line is almost surely going to crack precipitously–as it did in Slavyansk. We may thus be looking at a 21st century version of the Falaise Gap or the Mitla Pass–with hundreds of clueless civilians fleeing among the rebels. I hope people in Washington, Moscow and Kyiv is thinking very hard about how to deal with that possibility.

  6. What happened is a mistake, a tragedy. The rebels and Russia, if they did it, did not do it on purpose. These kind of things have happened before in the context of a military conflict, like Iran Air Flight 655, but then no one (who mattered in the West) was talking about punishing the US. Now all kinds of anti-Russian politicians (for example the president of Estonia) want to take the ones who are responsible to the ICJ. What happened is terrible, and Russia probably shares responsibility. But let’s be honest. Ukraine, the US and it’s allies are doing everything they can to use this disaster to hurt Russia. It is almost like they are happy it happened, very disrespectful towards the victims. It could not come at a better moment for the enemies of Russia. We should be more critical about the way this incident is being exploited.

  7. “Any state has the right to use force against armed, violent rebels, especially those who are clearly supported by a foreign power.”

    Human Rights Watch doesn’t quite see it like that. When this was taking place in Vukovar and Sarajevo, the US rightly condemned it and threatened military intervention (in the Medak Pocket and Gaza…not so much – and, of course, it was actively encouraged in the Krajina).

    Incidentally, given reports of the State Department’s role in arming and training (or, at the very least, facilitating the arming and training) of non-state actors in Syria and earlier in Serbia’s Presevo Valley, the US is hardly in a situation to start taking the moral high ground. When Russia intervened in South Ossetia and facilitated the secession of Crimea (the latter of which I did not agree with; I am less certain about the former), it was simply taking advantage of a situation which NATO created a decade earlier with its (illegal – Vienna Agreement, Helsinki Final Act) Kosovo intervention – an outcome which many of the more perceptive analysts warned at the time. Sorry, but you can’t have it both ways: either national borders are inviolable or they are not; and either shelling civilian centres is a war crime or it is not.

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  July 26, 2014

      Actually HRW in merely questioning the use of unguided rockets in populated areas, not Kyiv’s right to police its own polity.

      As for whether or not the USA did bad elsewhere, as I’m not a representative of the State Department or even a US citizen, it is entirely irrelevant. Two unconnected wrongs do not make a right.

  8. Reblogged this on Dave Page and commented:
    The stuff from this site is quality.

  1. MH17 and Eastern Ukraine Presents Long-Term Costs for Russia
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